Transportation and health of baby calves

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The Dairy Calf and Heifer Association (DCHA) has added to its Gold Standards of calf care with guidelines on animal welfare from birth to freshening. Gold Standards I covers production and performance standards for calves from birth to 6 months and Gold Standards II covers production and performance standards for heifers from 6 months to freshening.

The Gold Standards III encourage more veterinary involvement in dairy heifer management. The Standards emphasize that a veterinarian should physically visit the operation and observe animals at least monthly, which is the basis of a valid veterinary-client-patient relationship and helps to ensure that animals are provided humane housing, nutrition and medical care. What's more, according to the DCHA, the veterinarian offers a set of eyes that are a step removed from the operation and can provide advice based on both in-depth education and observations of practices that are working well for other operations.

One section in these new guidelines that will be discussed in this article outlines the transportation of dairy calves.

Greg Goodell, DVM, The Dairy Authority, LLC, Greeley, Colo., says loading and unloading calves can be difficult especially when using large trucks with calves less than a week of age. “Calves almost have to be handled one at a time,” he says. “They cannot stand well. Sides of truck have to have the wind blocked leaving only the top portions open for air exchange. No direct wind or rain should hit animals of this age.”

The cleanliness of these trailers – and the bedding – is also paramount for young calves with an underdeveloped immune system. “Sanitation is 100-fold more important in this age group than older calves,” Goodell stresses. “Salmonella and E. coli are huge players, but all pathogens can be an increased risk in this age. Colostrum is a must before transport.”

The new guidelines suggest delaying scheduled procedures until at least a week after transport. “Vaccination, dehorning, etc. all adds to the stress load of the calf and needs to be reduced to the largest extent possible,” Goodell adds. He suggests that if calves are 1 week of age or less, to feed two gallons colostrum when they are born and do no other handling or processing until at least one week post-transport.

The transportation guidelines have various recommendations for length of travel, and this will depend on different factors. Goodell has seen 1-week-old calves transported for 600-1000 miles with very little death loss. “I almost think it's easier on the calf to haul 1-week-old calves than it is to haul 1 to 2-month-old calves,” he says. “I don’t have any recorded data to support that claim, but my observations are that younger calves haven't developed a fear of anything yet and this may help keep stress levels down during transport.” Likewise, he says, calves that are 4-5 months-of-age that are well-vaccinated and carefully transported rarely suffer any losses.”

Weather stress in the summer or winter can especially negatively impact young calves. Goodell has seen death loss due to heat stress and cold stress. “During cold stress wind must be kept off these calves at all times with the main adjustment being the amount of wind allowed over the top of the calf for cooling in the summer time,” he explains. “During the summer the number of calves loaded onto a truck must also be decreased to prevent losses from heat.”

The number of calves is also a factor in transportation injuries, and the guidelines suggest using gates in the trailer to separate calves to prevent “piling up”.  “When transporting young calves you must develop a different level of cattle handlers,” Goodell says. “People who drive cattle through the use of fear or physical contact (yelling, whistling, dragging, dogs, 4-wheelers, etc.) will always have more injuries and dead calves, especially in the 1 to 2-month-old calves.”

And when they get to their destination, there needs to be a comfortable environment to rest with access to shelter, dry bedding, water and feed, which is important no matter the age. “Give access to water for older calves and the biggest thing is to get a milk feeding into younger calves if they haven't been weaned.”

Overall, Goodell stresses that handling makes the difference in transporting young calves. “Gentle, gentle, gentle!” he says. “It's amazing how well baby calves can tolerate transportation with an excellent colostrum program and very gentle handling. This requires patient handlers and a facility designed for young calves.” 

Transportation guidelines
DCHA says that transportation can be performed successfully with minimal stress on animals, and the Gold Standards III outlines these guidelines for dairy calf transportation:

A. Newborn calves should be dry, able to stand and at least 24 hours old before transporting.
B. Wash and disinfect transport vehicles between hauls with a recommended disinfectant for animal facilities.
C. Prepare floors of transport units to promote secure footing and absorption of urine and manure, using sawdust, wood shavings, straw or sand.
D. Avoid scheduled procedures such as vaccinating or dehorning for at least 1 week prior to transport (except for intranasal vaccines, which can be administered to boost interferon levels and help in preventing respiratory disease at the time of shipping).
E. Schedule trips to minimize number of hours cattle are on the truck.
F. In hot weather, schedule hauling at night or in the cooler part of the day.
G. If traveling for more than 24 hours with cattle 4 months of age or older, stop at a clean facility for a feed and water break for a minimum of five hours.
H. For trips longer than 11 hours, employ tandem drivers to avoid keeping animals on the truck for extra hours of mandated driver rest.
I. Avoid any unnecessary stops.
J. When hauling in cold weather, cover up to 1/2 to 2/3 of the holes in the trailer to reduce windchill. However, do not cover all holes, which would be detrimental to air circulation and quality.
K. Use as many gates as possible in the trailer to keep animals separated in small groups and avoid the possibility of bunching or piling during transportation.

What’s in Gold Standards III?
The Dairy Calf and Heifer Association Gold Standards III offers guidelines on animal welfare standards and covers:

  • Veterinary involvement
  • Colostrum management
  • Housing
  • Nutrition
  • Handling
  • Transportation
  • Vaccination
  • Drug therapy
  • Parasite control
  • Elective medical procedures and supportive care
  • Euthanasia

See the new and previous Dairy Calf and Heifer Association Gold Standards at www.calfandheifer.org


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